The Wood Brothers bring their kingdom of fun to the Ryman Auditorium on Valentine's Day. | Photograph: Scot Sax

A Kingdom of Fun

The Wood Brothers find the secret is in the jam

Ask Oliver Wood about The Wood Brothers’ upcoming album and you’ll receive a large helping of enthusiasm. In this case though, the passion for Kingdom in My Mind is a special kind of zeal.

“The coolest thing is how fun it was,” Wood says of the new album by the trio comprised of himself, his brother Chris, and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix. “We’ve been recording for a long time and made several records, but to do it without a record company looking over your shoulder and worrying about studio time running out made it a really fun project. It was like being a kid.”

“Fun” is an adjective missing from most reviews of The Wood Brothers’ career over the past 14 years. Not that their records haven’t been fun, but “accomplished,” “artistic,” and “distinctive” have been the superlatives preferred by critics for the group’s previous seven studio albums and four live releases. Since 2006, The Wood Brothers have crafted finely wrought fusions of folk, blues, gospel, jazz, and country, spotlighting outstanding musicality and creativity, while providing a tonic for Americana fans burned out on too many artists whose knowledge of American roots music seems to reach no further than Ryan Adams’ catalog and sparse selection of Neil Young albums.

Oliver and Chris Wood’s depth of knowledge and affinity for American folk music can in part be attributed to their pedigree. “Our father, Bill Wood, went to Harvard in the late ’50s, so he was in the middle of the famous Cambridge folk scene,” Chris Wood explains. “He had a radio show and knew and played all of the classic material. He was friends with Joan Baez and played with her on some of her early recordings. He ended up being a molecular biologist by trade but he always played music. There’s nothing like seeing someone play guitar right in front of you to inspire you as a young kid. We took it for granted at the time, but when we started The Wood Brothers, we began to appreciate how special it was seeing him play live in the living room.”

Oliver was drawn to music first, starting with electric bass and then handing off the instrument to his little brother after switching to guitar. The Wood Brothers 1.0 only existed for a short time, with each brother following their own musical path after high school. Oliver’s path led to Atlanta where he came to the attention of blues/funk troubadour Tinsley Ellis. After several years of backing Ellis on the road and recordings, Oliver left to co-found the blues-rock combo King Johnson in 1996. Meanwhile, Chris’ musical road led to studies at the New England Conservatory of Music and then New York City where he formed the avant-garde groove-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood.

“We didn’t see each other much or even talk much for 15 years until both of our bands ended up on a double bill and Oliver sat in with Medeski Martin & Wood,” Chris Wood says. “It was a lightbulb moment. We realized there was a musical connection. King Johnson was starting to wind down and not long after that there was talk in my band of some of the guys wanting to get off the road. So it started with this vague idea that we were going to do something together. We started by taking some of Oliver’s older songs and rearranging them for a duo. In the process we came up with some more and that ended up being our first record, Ways Not to Lose.”

Released in 2006 on Blue Note Records, Ways Not to Lose drew praise from critics for the unself-conscious mix of blues, folk, and jazz, garnering the number one spot on amazon.com editors’ folk picks for the year and NPR’s “Overlooked 11.”

Starting as a side project, The Wood Brothers gradually became the centerpiece of the brothers’ careers, leading to a geographical reunion. “We began to float the idea around that we should live in the same city,” Chris Wood says. “Oliver wasn’t going to move to New York and I wasn’t going to move to Atlanta. We were both attracted to Nashville. It’s one of those cities that gets musicians and accepts them as normal people and even respects them — which is not the case in every city.”

In 2011, The Wood Brothers signed with Zac Brown’s Nashville-based Southern Ground label for their fourth studio album, Smoke Ring Halo and physically relocated to the Music City the next year. Around the same time they added Jano Rix to The Wood Brothers line-up, replacing a succession of various drummers. The multi-talented Rix brought more than just a steady beat.

“Jano has so many talents,” Chris Wood says. “Not only is he a great drummer, he is a really studied jazz piano player and sings great too. Then he has this instrument he invented called the ‘shuitar,’ a crappy acoustic guitar that he turned into a multi-use percussion instrument. So we can play acoustic bass and guitar, and with this thing, you have a drum kit with a low volume.”

With the addition of Rix to the line-up, The Wood Brothers’ already impressive sound fully came into its own on the Buddy Miller produced 2013 album, The Muse. The Wood Brothers’ ability to tap into the sonic mythology of what critic Greil Marcus termed “Old Weird America” and present it with a contemporary yet timeless feel, drew comparisons to the classic recordings of The Band. Writing for allmusic.com, critic Steve Leggett said The Wood Brothers’ music suggests “a rural America where myths are born and made real with music, a place where current fashion is useless, a place where a trip to the local juke for some backwoods jazzy honky tonk gospel blues is nigh near a trip to Heaven.”

Both brothers agree that knowledge and familiarity of the varied strands of American music is only one part in the creation of exciting and innovative music. The real secret is found in the clash and collaboration of talents and personalities.

“In the beginning when we were playing as duo, I was coming from the New York world and Medeski Martin & Wood, which most people consider experimental jazz, and Oliver was coming from a classic blues world,” Chris Wood says. “We had 95 percent of the same background influences but our experiences and where we lived made us produce very different music. For The Wood Brothers, the image I had in my head was what if Charles Mingus and Robert Johnson were in a band together? It seems like a lot of the time American black music isn’t represented in Americana. For us Delta blues, gospel, R&B, and jazz are really important music, and how can those be blended in an organic way with bluegrass and Appalachian folk music? There are just so many great songs out there — lyrics and stories, but is there a way to take the music out of the box, make it interesting and different, while still preserving the songs, images, and the story? That was the challenge.”

Oliver Wood expounds on the same idea. “Chris, Jano, and myself all have very over-lapping tastes but we still bring different things to the table. Art in general is about choices. It’s what you don’t do that’s important — ‘No, that’s been done. What’s the twist that we can put on it?’ That’s where the experimentation comes in — ‘We’re not going to go there, we’re going to take a left instead.’ That’s where all art comes from. It’s true there’s nothing new, but your influences become the vocabulary that you can use in original ways.”

The mastery of musical vocabulary has continued through two subsequent albums, Paradise (2015) and One Drop of Truth (2018). When it came time to start work on their latest collection, Kingdom in My Mind, circumstances allowed them to approach collaborations in a different manner.

“On our last record we had an engineer — Brook Sutton — we really liked,” Oliver Wood says. “He lost his lease to his studio. We decided to go in together with him on a new space. We would have a home base for The Wood Brothers and he would have a working studio while we were on tour.”

With the new studio ready to go in July 2019 and The Wood Brothers between tours, they decided to put it through its paces with a freeform jam session.

“It’s a method that we’ve used for writing songs,” Oliver Wood says. “We would set up in our old rehearsal space and just jam without really thinking about songs. One of us would start a groove and the rest would just jump in and improvise. We used to do that in our rehearsal space and capture it on a phone or laptop and re-record the parts we liked later, but in our own studio space we were capturing album-quality recordings. We didn’t know if we were going to use them or not, but it turned out to be some of the coolest music we ever made. We would never be able to recreate some of the music that we were making with no thought.”

The lack of intention even boosted the sonic feel of the recordings, as Chris Wood explains: “We even liked how everything was set up quick and dirty so there was a lot of bleed in the microphones from the other instruments. It created a nice character to the music. A lot of our favorite records are filled with bleed. We decided pretty early on the process of this record was improvise first, get inspired by the music, and then write lyrics over that.”

“A couple of songs on the album were worked up more conventionally,” Oliver Wood adds, “but most of the songs were recorded that way. Some of the jams were 30 or 40 minutes long. We’d find the coolest three to five minutes of one and write a song over it. The process got us really excited because we were able to capture some of those ‘mistakes’ you hear on old records — a weird drum fill in an odd place or guitar riffs right over the top of vocal — things you can’t try to do. You have to get lucky and capture them.”

The free-flowing creativity of Kingdom in My Mind is front and center from the first notes of the album opener, “Alabaster,” a folky, R&B and jazz-infused jam chronicling the story of a young woman who has reached her limit with her confining small town life and a dead-end, abusive love affair. The song grew from one of the first jams they recorded.

“It was from before we realized we could turn the recordings into an album,” says Oliver. “I love the way we collaborated on it. I wrote some lyrics; Chris arranged the jam into a song, and then Jano played some amazing piano overdubs. It was perhaps the most experimental and collaborative song we’ve done to date, and I’m very proud of it.”

The diversity of The Wood Brothers’ stylistic mastery continues through “Little Bit Sweet,” a rumination on the exquisite beauty and sadness of life and love, built on a foundation of classic hillbilly picking and vocal harmonies.

“I’m very attached to [“Little Bit Sweet”] for sentimental reasons,” Oliver Wood says. “It was written from the very first jam in the new studio. When we listened to it, we said, ‘Wow, we did the right thing.’ It was so fun and easy.”

The sense of easy-going fun, like random sparks leaping from a musical bonfire continues throughout the album, whether it’s the polyrhythmic Big Easy rock ‘n’ roll drive of “Don’t Think About My Own Death,” the languid Southern-ballad tradition of “Satisfied,” or the funky gospel call-and-response-spiced sway of “Little Bit Broken.”

“It’s not like it’s a new idea,” says Chris. “The Talking Heads followed pretty much the same process for Remain in Light [jamming in the studio and then writing lyrics to match the music]. It keeps the improvisational part of the creative process going the whole way. Once you write a song and then work up the music, the boundaries are set. The limitations are already there. The word that really nails it is ‘playful.’ In the situation we created, we remained playful the whole time.”

With the release of Kingdom in My Mind set for Jan. 24, a major North American tour kicking off on Jan. 29, and a hometown performance at the Ryman Auditorium on Feb. 14, The Wood Brothers are facing a busy schedule for the next several months. When they return home, their studio will be ready to capture more accomplished, artistic, distinctive, and yes, even fun, music from three outstanding musicians.

“Now that we know how fun recording this way is and how it effects our creativity, I’m sure we’ll do it again, but we are still using the conventional method too,” Oliver Wood says. “We write all the different ways. Sometimes we write from the ground up as a group, sometimes we work individually, but they always end in collaboration.”